In my last post, I mentioned that I had an assignment for an online course to design an ideal learning environment, based on what I had learnt from the course, and that I would post my response here once I had finished it. I ended up writing it in something of a rush; I planned it out carefully, thought for a long time about what I would write, and then spontaneously went to London for a couple of days. When I got back I realised I had two hours until the submission deadline. Sometimes that’s how life goes! So here is a slightly edited version of what I wrote.
People learn best when they are self-motivated and self-directed, by which I mean both that the topic of learning is of personal interest or related to a personal goal, and that the mode of learning is flexible enough to allow them to learn when and how they wish. This self-motivation and direction appeal to the emotional aspect of learning: when learners feel that they are taking charge of their own education and are in control of how they learn, they experience a much more positive attitude towards the process of learning. Flexibility does not mean lack of structure, but instead an adaptability on the part of the leader of the learning mode which allows individual learners to approach the learning in a way that uniquely suits them.
Part of this flexibility is related to the accessibility of the learning material; the advantage of modern technology is that learners are no longer confined to formal learning locations but can access multimedia resources from anywhere, at any time. This allows learners to find a physical environment which suits their needs, rather than being forced to travel to the physical environment which houses the resources they need. Some learners may still prefer an environment such as a library or school classroom, whilst others might find they learn best in the familiarity of their own home, or in a public cafe. It is important to recognise that the physical environment is just as important as the content being learnt – distractions caused by noise, discomfort, hunger or other constraints can seriously hamper learning.
Learning is also enhanced when it has a social aspect, either integrated into the learning experience or appended to it as an optional addition for those who would find it useful. For some people, approaching the learning material with others who are also studying the same thing helps them to stay focused and understand the content, whilst others may prefer to learn alone and regroup in order to discuss the implications of the information. Socialising which is related to the learning process can help to motivate and encourage learners, and discussion can cause mental links and new ideas to develop which might otherwise have been missed. This links to both the social and cognitive spheres of learning, and means that a social structure of some form is useful for any mode of learning.
With these foundations in place, a learning environment can be developed which is sufficiently flexible to suit any learner pursuing any kind of learning, whilst still providing the social structure and interactive element which can benefit individuals. As a result of considering these issues, and in order to meet my own learning needs, I have established a social group for self-directed learners of any kind, which is organised and promoted via the internet but which provides face-to-face interaction opportunities to enhance group members’ learning journeys. The online platform allows all group members to arrange physical events which they wish to either attend or lead, giving the group a more collective, collaborative and non-hierarchical character. This ties into the concept of learning being best when self-directed, as it allows each person to take the lead when they choose and opt into events which appeal to them.
The group’s events take place in a variety of different locations which are suited to the format or purpose of the event. For instance, a study group might meet in a library or a quiet cafe with free wifi access, whereas a discussion group or debate could occur in a park or a member’s home. Group members can draw others’ attention to events such as public lectures or educational activities and invite people to join them in attending, using the online platform provided by Meetup.com.
The digital space is not the focus of the group but is an extremely useful tool in organising the group’s activities, as it allows each person to fill in a short profile detailing their learning interests and styles, has a convenient calendar for arranging events and provides a discussion board for online communication. This mitigates for some of the disadvantages of physical locations such as libraries and cafes, which have restricted opening times and require a degree of geographical proximity and the ability to attend events at specific times. Communicating online fosters a sense of community among members, even if they have not met in person, which taps into the social and emotional aspects of learning and provides encouragement and motivation. It also means that everyone receives the same information about upcoming events, so new members can integrate straight into the group.
Above all, the strength of this group is that it promotes a culture of learning and prioritises the process over the product. It is not focused on a specific form of learning, or on particular content or qualifications; it is not even limited to a designated platform or medium of learning. Instead the common element which links the members together is a drive to learn and enjoyment of self-directed education. As the group grows, its format will shift to meet the needs of the members using the flexibility built into the structure.